Disclaimer: although I do work on some of these issues – this is a personal post, on my personal blog and done in my own time and does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.
In a hotel in central Doncaster five or six years ago, I was sharing a meal with a colleague. He had an environmental health background, you know, restaurant inspections and the like. We were discussing that I’d just seen restaurant hygiene ratings online for Lawrenceburg, my hometown. (I’d link to them, but time passes and it’s not as easy as it used to be to find them. But you can still look up scores under any zip code) He didn’t think that was such a good idea. It put the restaurants’ business in jeopardy for what a snapshot inspection. People might not understand what the scores meant. He was pretty much appalled by the regular feature on Houston local television from Marvin Zindler (of Best Little Whore House in Texas investigative journalism fame) where he focused on local eateries that had failed health inspections with detailed accounts of dead flies and rat droppings and he reported with particular glee on slime in the ice machine. Here’s his last every restaurant report, the whole thing is good, but the money shot begins at 1 minute 28 seconds.
So essentially, we were eating a meal and we had no way of knowing whether they had consistent violations or a spic and span kitchen. Personally, I want to know whether there’s slime in ice machine. He’s not a bad guy, I really like him. But essentially he was part of culture of bureaucracy which meant that he didn’t trust the rest of us to understand what environmental health officers do. But he expected us to trust that restaurant inspections were going well and keeping us safe.
Time has moved on there, too. There’s now a scores on the door programme in the UK.
I was reminded of this today when I saw Heather Brooke speaking at the RSA about her book The Silent State: secrets, surveillance and the myth of British democracy. She was the muckraking campaigner who did much to expose the parliamentary expenses scandal. In her talk today she focused on the rise of data base government. And I stress that while she’s not opposed to the government collecting data, obviously data and information are critical to effective governance and service delivery, she is opposed to the ceaseless gathering of personal data on all of us, to which we often have no access, no right of correction and which can be passed from agency to agency. She blames the faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats for this data pack-rattery and I think she blames as well much of the British public who complacently allow this to happen.
I’m in a bit of an odd position in that I am one of those faceless British bureaucrats and I’m an American citizen with a healthy distrust of government (or paranoia, you be the judge). When I expressed my doubts about the national child data base (ContactPoint) – colleagues could not believe that I didn’t want my child on it – though in fact, I don’t have a choice about this. I don’t really know who has access to it or what information it will hold, despite having read the fact sheet. I don’t even know if my son yet has a record (it hasn’t been fully implemented yet). In the fact sheet, I’m told I can ask to see the record, but I’m not given any information about who I’d ask to get it.
It’s not that I think someone will misuse the information about my son, there‘s a certain safety in numbers, I guess, I mean why would my son’s data in particular be misused. But someone could do it. It’s not that I don’t think that most people who work in the UK public sector aren’t fantastically dedicated or at least perfectly OK. But there are just so gosh darned many of us, that some of us have got to be bad/lazy/corrupt. And some of them have access to information about you and me.
Another point she covered is that all this data may not actually be solving the problems. I’m a technocrat of the first order, so naturally I think that more data is better. But I also know that even perfect data won’t help you if you don’t make the right decisions with it. What’s rarely been mentioned in the light of Baby Peter case or Victoria Climbie is that although some information wasn’t shared, often it was. Part of the problem was simply professionals making the wrong decision or using poor judgment or apparently not being bothered enough or too overworked to follow up. It’s easier to say that we need more information than to look at the culture of decision making.
Things are getting better
Heather Brooke was a bit dismissive to Matthew Taylor’s (head of the RSA and event chair and former Number 10 policy chief) suggestion that the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act was a step in the right direction. I do think that it’s important if imperfect. I think the open data movement is even more important, putting non-personal data owned by the government in the hands of anyone. (data.gov and data.gov.uk) Of course, that’s all non-personal data. But it is a big step toward greater transparency and accountability.
But at the same time that the government is getting on the bandwagon of open and linked data, the government is using linked data principles (essentially standards which help you to link a data point in one set to a corresponding data point in another set – e.g. information about my health and my employment) to make it even easier to share both personal and non-personal data between agencies. Some of that’s good, it’s more efficient, it could avoid information mismatching and help agencies get on the same page. But some of that may be a bit worrying. As it gets easier for you to connect up information about government, you can bet that it’s going to be even easier for government to connect up information about you.